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BUILDING A 21st CENTURY ECONOMY

By Dick Meister

It's the 66th anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act, the Depression-era law that was -- and still is -- essential to the well-being of working Americans. But hold the applause, please. It's not celebration that's wanted. It's reform.

Today's working people need a revitalized Labor Relations Act as desperately as the workers of 1935 needed the original NLRA. The reasons are many, most of them stemming from the helter-skelter profit-chasing by greedy corporate employers aided by powerful political leaders.

The NLRA granted the basic, vital right of unionization to yesterday's workers, who until then had very few rights. That allowed them to bargain collectively with employers. It was the weapon workers had to have if they were to improve the miserable pay and working conditions inflicted on them and escape blatant exploitation.

Union membership grew rapidly after passage of the law and wages and working conditions improved markedly. As President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress had anticipated, the living standards of ordinary people rose to the point that the country at last developed a true middle class.

But though the NLRA worked then, it is not working now. Amendments and lax enforcement have kept the law from adequately protecting today's workers.

The remedy is obvious: Modify the Labor Relations Act and its enforcement in order to return the law to its original purpose. Enable the mass of working people to once more join together in strong and effective unions.

That, however, would decidedly upset many employers and their Republican Party allies. They've pretty much been having their way, exercising a virtually unchecked anti-unionism that's been chiefly responsible for reducing union ranks to less than 15 percent of U.S. workers.

It's become very easy for employers to fire or otherwise penalize and harass workers who demonstrate pro-union sympathies during organizing campaigns. And in more than one-third of the instances in which workers nevertheless vote for union representation, employers avoid negotiating contracts with their union by challenging the election results or by simply refusing to negotiate.

What's needed most is to remove the amendments imposed by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. They in effect shifted the intent of the law away from encouraging unionization by, among other changes, allowing employers to intervene in organizing campaigns and prohibiting union members from waging sympathy strikes or otherwise acting in solidarity with other workers.

Deleting those provisions should be merely a first step. Lawmakers also must prohibit employers from replacing strikers, require them to grant organizers full access to their workplaces, subject them to much swifter and much stiffer penalties, and force those who balk at reaching initial contracts with unions to have the terms decided by an arbitrator.

It would make sense, too, if union recognition was granted simply by determining whether a majority of an employer's workers had signed up with the union seeking bargaining rights. That's how it was originally, with no lengthy election campaigns, no opportunity for employers to intimidate workers.

There's been no lack of legislation to carry out the necessary reforms. Democratic members of Congress have made sure of that. But Republicans have blocked the bills, while also pushing measures to weaken the NLRA even more and further undermine worker rights.

The drive for reform continues nevertheless. It has to. As AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka says:

"America can't build a 21st century economy with Model-T labor laws. America can only have a high-wage, high-skill, high-performance economy when workers have power, when workers don't have to live in fear of the boss, when workers can speak their minds, when workers can organize, bargain and strike." ____________________________________________________________________________ Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered labor issues for four decades as a newspaper and broadcast reporter, editor and commentator. Copyright c 2001 Dick Meister.


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